Over the course of 10 days (12-21 September 2019), Tbilisi Photo Festival, the premier event in the wider Caucasus region, returned to Georgia for its tenth annual celebration of world-class photography with a lively program of outstanding exhibitions and engaging events. The official programme of the festival is curated by Nestan Nijaradze, inviting artists to take over unconventional sites and public spaces.
Standing atop Mtatsminda Mountain on the edge of Tbilisi, looking down on the spectacular Old Town which lies on the banks of the beautiful Kura river and watching the sunset over the wide vista that is Georgia, you will understand what makes this city so special. Your gaze will fixate on the sight of the many domes of sulphur baths sticking out in the Abanotubani area, where one of the exhibitions of the festival takes place; Arctic: New Frontier. Including work by NOOR photographers Yuri Kozyrev and Kadir van Lohuizen, Arctic: New Frontier is a project that investigates the startling effect of climate change on the land and its indigenous communities of the Arctic Circle, and it has been awarded the 9th edition of the Carmignac Photojournalism Award.
Night of Photography, curated by Gvantsa Jishkariani, showcased open-air nighttime screenings held in the historical Mushtaidi Park. The idea behind the creation of Night of Photography, produced in partnership with Les Rencontres d’Arles, is to have a platform that uses the medium of photography as a universal language to connect Georgia to the rest of the world.
Besides the international well-known names displayed on the nine screens spread throughout the park, there is the young Georgian photographers’ section including artists such as Sandro Sulaberidze with his work When Bones meet Iron. Sulaberidze’s multimedia works focus on the importance of light and its influence on body or conscious. Starting from the project ‘Point of a view of a fly’ (2014), he experiments with different arrangements and self-made cameras, capturing images of reality as seen from the eyes of another creature.
The Georgian female photographers‘ section, selected by Tbilisi Photography & Multimedia Museum, presents works by Tako Robakidze with her multimedia piece, Creeping Borders, and Natela Grigalashvili’s Dukhobors’ Land. Robakidze has spent more than a year with families who live along the South Ossetia line of control, a moving border that Georgians call a “creeping occupation” due to Russian military continually pushing deeper into Georgian territory. Grigalashvili’s Dukhobors’ Land documents the hard life of the Doukhobors (self-declared spirit-warriors), an Orthodox-Protestant society, who, after being exiled by the Russian Tsar, relocated to Georgia.
Artworks are being liberated from the walls of galleries to habitats strange and new. However, it is not just the places within which our experiences are being challenged. Wave goodbye to conventional visiting hours and start seeing art at night. Galleries are opening their doors to a demographic that is unable, or less inclined to visit them during the day. Art is not only becoming more available but more interesting, to a greater amount of people. This is the main idea behind the Tbilisi Photo Festival X Galleries *at night* event; PROJECT ARTBEAT presented two solo exhibitions by prominent Georgian photographers, Nata Sopromadze & David Meskhi, and UNTITLED GALLERY with the exhibition ‘Untitled Archive’, showcasing found photographs from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan with the intention to re-open a dialogue between the Soviet generation and the new generations born and raised in the independent countries.
Despite a pleasingly casual vibe, the festival comprises a packed schedule of events including a panel discussion with Alessandro Penso and Thomas Dworzak, amongst others, on the Migrants’ Odyssey in Europe, as well as Beth Flynn, Deputy Picture Editor at the New York Times, who joined a panel whose topic was Russia and the News in The Age of Disinformation. Numerous in-depth presentations detailing a compelling array of artistic projects took place, covering specialist topics such as photobook design, the camera and the political imagination, with an approach to storytelling that addresses the world’s changing environment and societies.
The tenth edition of the festival is marked by the launch of the Tbilisi Photo & Multimedia Museum. The museum will be the first institution in the South Caucasian region dedicated to the contemporary image in its varying forms – photography, video, new media – and has ambitious plans to become a hub for creative expression and exchange. The museum is situated on the second floor of the iconic Stamba Hotel, Georgia’s most important printing house and a celebration of Tbilisi’s ever-evolving identity as a hotbed of talent and originality.
The museum will exhibit photography from international, regional and local artists, drawing from expansive archives garnered from a decades’ worth of material from the Tbilisi Photo Festival. Led by a team of women and with specific attention paid to highlighting the work of female photographers in the South Caucasus, the space heralds a new and exciting frontier in the presentation of photo-art in the region.
Key to the Multimedia Museum’s development is the dedication to protect and promote Georgian cultural heritage. The launch coincides with the opening of the multi-screen video exhibition Unus Mundus by French artists duo Vincent Moon and Priscilla Telmon (above). This site-specific installation of sacred music and rituals fill up the space of the museum, bringing together different extreme practices of celebrating faith and transcendence in an immersive and highly impressive installation.
The exhibition Across the Mountains: South Caucasus Photography, Volume I, focuses on the convergence of various genres- from documentary and photojournalism, multimedia and video – that exist on the verge of contemporary art and photography. “Difference. Diversity. Development”– curator Anna Shpakova very accurately uses these three words to describe what is happening in this space today.
For the first time, the works of the three South Caucasian countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – are displayed in one space, offering quite an intimate experience are works that invite the viewer to discover the others as an alternative to ourselves. The show presents over 20 new generation South Caucasian artists working on topics including women’s rights, immigration, the changing of traditional values, minorities and marginalization.
The work by Dina Oganova in her project #MeToo, named after the famous phrase by Tarana Burke, as well as Anait Airapetyan’s Princess to Slave and Sitara Ibragimova’s A Women’s Journey, reflect the rapid changes in the role of the woman that, in the first glance, are firmly embedded in the fabric of society and touch upon the most acute topics; from kidnapping to forced and early marriage, from elective abortions to the legal aspects of the prevention of domestic violence.
Mirroring topics of male self-identity in South Caucasian societies, where traditional lifestyles are distorted by urbanisation, migration, as well as by technological development and economic changes, is covered in the project Ghilman by Leyla Gafarova. It studies the historical and social aspects of homo-social culture at the junction of traditional and modern visual genres. Aghil Abdullae in his work Dear Michael, organising the dialogue between individual and society, raises the question on stereotypical gender identity and resolves it through a multidisciplinary approach: combining video, photography and performance.
The work by Nazik Armenakyan – The Stamp of Loneliness – breaches the rigid, inflexible codes of Caucasian society, telling us the searing story of the LGBT community. In the course of the narration, not only the objects, but she herself – her internal and professional changes in the process of approximation with the heroes of her story; castaways of the society; become the characters of the affair.
The results of the exhibitions presented at Tbilisi Photo Festival – covering a multitude and diverse series of topics; society, boundaries, culture, men and women, make this Caucasian adventure absolutely unique. The desire to support each other and extend the reach of photography is uniformly shared, with many attendees being part of the local art community and from all over the world. The infectious passion and camaraderie are defining characteristics of the festival, helping bring everything together with a sense of purpose.